Race: April 2008 Archives

I've long wondered what idiot first came up with the idea that a curse on Canaan in Genesis 9 someone was supposed to justify mistreatment of black Africans, who have little association with Canaan anywhere in the Bible. Most scholars today don't see Genesis 10's table of nations as showing geneaological connections to begin with, given how such language is often used in ancient near eastern cultures for political and cultural connections of vassalship without geneaological connections (and most of the names are place names and ethnic groups without the usual indications that appear with proper names). However, even if you do take it the way it sounds if you take what's in the English translations literally, the curse is on Ham's son Canaan, not on Ham himself. Black Africans are connected with other sons of Ham, not the one who was cursed. The view is completely at odds with what the text actually says.

So I've long wondered who first came up with the view this curse on Canaan justified enslaving the descendants of Canaan's brothers, Ham's other sons. I'm wondering no longer. It turns out that it wasn't a Jewish or Christian interpreter at all, and the view is actually a lot older than I thought. I figured it appeared at the earliest in the late medieval period. It actually doesn't appear in Europe until the slave trade was well under way, so I was partly right. Medieval Europe (Spain and other Muslim-influenced parts aside) was actually opposed to slavery for the most part (at least if you don't count serfdom as slavery; I do, but I also consider modern employment a kind of slavery, and that's not the kind of slavery this view was trying to justify).

The people who first came up with this justification for slavery of Africans were very early Muslims, and that view was dominant within the Islamic world (but not outside it) for 100 years until it spread to Europeans via contact with the Spanish and their treatment of Moors. Then Europeans and eventually colonial Americans began to adopt it. So it wasn't even initially a misreading of the Bible. The relevant parts of the Qur'an don't mention Ham at all, so it's not even a misreading of the Qur'an. It's simply a fabrication in order to justify the kind of slavery Muslims had been imposing on black Africans.

It was an early Muslims who first (as far as we know) developed the idea that Ham was cursed. I found a quote in Edwin Yamauchi's Africa and the Bible from a Muslim who wrote in the late 7th to early 8th centuries, and the whole view is right there. Noah cursed Ham (not Canaan) by imposing slavery on Africans whenever the descendants of Shem would come across them. It attributes their hair type to the curse as well (but not, interestingly, their skin color, though it does mention their skin color). A 9th century Muslim does bring in a change of skin color because of the curse, and Yamauchi mentions other sources attributing natural slavery to black Africans because of this curse, a view that I'm pretty sure doesn't become entrenched in Europe or the Americas until the slave trade was well under way.

Its first appearance in the colonies isn't long after the British occupied American territory and started importing slaves, but it had been in Europe before that. Various versions of it appear even before the Reformation, as early as the mid-15th century, but that was in formerly-Muslim Portugal regarding the now-enslaved Moors. European theologians generally resisted the idea, and it probably didn't take serious hold until the modern concept of race came into existence through the work of Immanuel Kant and his contemporaries who sought to explain differences in physical features by means of biological essences of different races.

So Muslims, a very dominant form of which has an awful lot of problems with human rights even today, seem to be the initial impetus behind one of the key justifications of European and American slavery of blacks. This doesn't excuse the Europeans and Americans who did it, but Muslim writers were originally responsible for the idea, and it came to the colonies and Europeans via the cotton trade. I think it's time to stop blaming this on Christianity even if there were plenty of Christians who have held this view that originated in Islamic slavery. It's silly enough to blame Christianity for a view that hasn't held sway for most of Christian history but only appeared late and lasted only a couple hundred years before going the way of the dodo except in offshoot groups like Mormons. But if the view originally came from another religion entirely and has been dominant in the members of that religion's justification of slavery, while Christians steadfastly resisted it for centuries before falling sway to it for a few hundred years, I think it's justifiable to claim that those who blame this on Christianity are relying on historical ignorance.

One of the things I'm suggesting in my dissertation is that the one-drop rule for determining race in the United States is on the wane, or at least that it's more complicated when it applies than just the usual view that it always does. One piece of evidence I think is somewhat compelling is the linguistic fact that a lot of people feel perfectly comfortable referring to a set of twins with different skin colors as if one is black and the other white. I've also got some more outlandish intuition pumps that I think help the case a little.

But there's another way of departing from the one-drop rule that a lot of people I know seem to exhibit, one that a lot of race scholars seem to me to treat as at best marginal. A lot of people will talk about mixed-race people as if they are both races. Barack Obama is sometimes referred to as both black and white, for example. James Collier, a mixed black-white man, speaks this way. I think a lot of people we know see our kids as either both black and white or as neither black nor white. If someone can be both black and white, then it clearly contradicts the one-drop rule.

I discussed some of my work with a leading scholar of African-American philosophy a few months ago. He took me to task for a lot of assumptions that he refused to recognize as anything but ignorance. He spent a lot of time explaining that Plessy of Plessy v. Ferguson was 7/8 white, I suppose in order to show how significantly the one-drop rule has affected policy. What that ignores is that things are changing, however. That case was a long time ago. I think he may have thought I was denying that the one-drop rule ever operates, which is not only way beyond the evidence I've presented but almost certainly very easy to prove false. But that's not the view I was defending. I was simply arguing that it's more complicated than it was several decades ago, with some people at some times no longer relying on such a rule.

I don't know many non-blacks of my generation whose racial judgments rely on the one-drop rule, and I've discussed race issues with a lot of people of my generation from a broad range of backgrounds. The one place it still persists very strongly in the circles I've run in is among black people. I know of at least two black conservatives who have claimed that black Americans have a lot invested in the one-drop rule, although I haven't seen enough to figure out what they might be. It's a provocative claim, one I want to think about more. But I'm sure of one thing. At least in the northeast of the U.S., people of my generation are at the very least not consistently using the one-drop rule. I say good riddance. It's unfortunate that some scholars are a little more reluctant to acknowledge that than there seems to be evidence for.

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